14 February 2011

The Inherently International Fallacy

In the two decades I have listened to debate about regulation of the Internet, one theme comes up again and again: "The Internet", I have been told, "is inherently international".

I disagree.

Consider this. What if the Internet had no international cross-border connections at all? Would we have no "Internet"? I don't think so. What would remain would be a series of 100+ "little domestic Internets" that would all (more or less) continue to function at a technical level.


Those of us who have been working in his space for many years remember when network "islands" like this were the rule, rather than the exception. In 1992 when I arrived at LSE, JANET (the UK Joint Academic NETwork) was not operating a "true" IP network and traffic passing outside of JANET (much of it email) had to be routed through specially programmed gateways.

(And yes for you network engineers in the audience, I know that there would be an overhead involved for each and every country to commission and operate its own "island" DNS hierarchy, that direct interoperability would degrade without cooperation, etc., etc. I know that you don't like the idea, but I think it's important to highlight that it is technically feasible.)

Of course some part of the value of the Internet would be lost, because of what economists call "network effects": the increase in value created by increasing the number of connections available in a given network. Consider what happens at home if your ISP "Internet" connection fails. Your "home LAN" probably still works just fine. But you find that you are connected to very few people and the value of your connectivity goes way down.

But what if your LAN were much bigger? What if it extended to your entire neighbourhood? To your online grocery store? To your bank? Now ask yourself what if your LAN connected you to every other person and business in your country?

How much of your day-to-day life depends upon connecting to sources of information outside of your country? If you live in the US probably not very much. The "network effects" value of a US-only domestic Internet remains very high because so many people and businesses are resident there. The value of a domestic-only Internet to smaller countries, and especially developing countries, is relatively small by comparison because there are far fewer people and businesses who are connected.

My point is this. It is technically feasible to dis-connect a single country's "Internet" from the rest of the world. This would disrupt services obtained from "outside" and undoubtedly would make a lot of people angry. Especially those of you who rely upon major cloud computing resources (such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, etc.) that may be located outside of your home country (depending on where you call "home").

So why doesn't this happen? Well, sometimes it does. We had a dramatic demonstration of this recently. Egyptian ISP's cut their connections with all Internet service providers outside of Egypt in response to domestic political unrest. (I am not trying to praise or to condemn the actions of the Egyptian Government or Egyptian ISPs. That's not what this blog is about. I am citing this as an example of what is technically possible, and not as an example of what is wise or good.) In the case of Egypt the international Internet traffic was restored within a few days.

Under very different circumstances a few years ago, ISP's in Estonia also disconnected themselves from the rest of the world for a few days. This was not a response to domestic political unrest. Estonian web sites (you may recall) had come under DDoS attack from a foreign source and this was crippling the ability of Estonians to go about their day-to-day business. Among other things, they were prevented from making effective use of Estonian domestic Internet banking services. The quickest fix? Unplug Estonia from the rest of the world for a few days while a long term fix was designed and implemented. Estonia's International Internet communications were disrupted completely, but this allowed Estonians in Estonia to communicate with friends, businesses, and banks in Estonia using - the Estonian domestic Internet.

So here's the bottom line:
  • The Internet today is probably more "International" than "non-International";
  • The Internet as it is structured today may be significantly more valuable to human-kind than a non-International (or 100% border-restricted) Internet; and
  • People around the world may (for the most part) WANT the Internet to be "International".
BUT this does not necessarily mean that the Internet MUST be international. It merely means that many societies value the ability to remain connected to non-domestic resources. If a country develops enough domestic online resources to create sufficient network effects with domestic-only networks, they may change their mind about their desire to remain - connected.

Lessons for ISP's: Have your "emergency international unplug" contingency plan in place. One day the call could come from your regulator, a government Ministry, your Board of Directors, or somebody, telling you to take the network "domestic-only". It might last a day, a week, or a year, but you should be prepared just in case.

Lessons for domestic-focussed businesses (grocery stores, gardening shops, furniture and appliance stores, etc): Be prepared for what happens if your "international Internet" (for whatever reason) becomes "unplugged" for awhile. If you are heavily reliant on foreign-source computing resources it may be difficult for you to do your job. It may be time to take a second look at a provider who offers a domestic solution.

Lessons for Cloud Computing businesses: Continue to drive towards a "localisation" strategy as fast as you can. Anyone who thinks that they can survive in this space using data centres in only 2 or 3 countries will lose major business opportunities in the future. If you are not presently building out multiple data centres throughout the world, then prepared to be left behind before the end of this decade.